Australia and Indonesia Reach an Understanding

The surprise decision by the Indonesian Government to propose a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with Australia for combating international terrorism, is one of the cleverest diplomatic initiatives ever made in South East Asia.

Although it was only raised at the beginning of John Howard’s trip to Indonesia last week, the less than successful nature of the Prime Minister’s visit ensured Canberra’s swift agreement. Finally, here was a substantive outcome from a fraught and occasionally troubled three days.

The MOU is Jakarta’s response to pressure from the US to clamp down harder on militant Islamists (eg Jemaah Islamiah) who may have links with Osama bin Laden’s Al Qaeda network. It has six significant effects:

1) It eases the pressure coming from the Bush Administration which thinks Jakarta has been dragging its feet on shutting down local ‘terrorist’ groups, while buying some time before Washington gets tougher;

2) It accelerates the rebuilding of military ties between the Indonesian military (TNI) and the Australian Defence Forces (ADF), much to the delight of senior ADF officers;

3) It helps to weaken US Congressional bans on military ties between the US and Indonesia (beyond limited training and non-lethal aid) by getting one of Washington’s closest allies to re-legitimise the TNI. Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and the defence establishment in the US are very keen to re-engage the TNI, even if Congress isn’t – yet;

4) By forcing yet another reaffirmation of Indonesia’s territorial integrity out of Canberra, Jakarta will feel it has a freer hand to clamp down even more violently on secessionists in Aceh (GAM) and West Papua (OPM). Being co-opted by the MOA, it will be harder for Canberra to criticise Jakarta about human rights abuses in these provinces, not that they are in any way inclined to do so;

5) It may eventually force Australia to make an invidious choice between ongoing support for President Bush’s ‘war against terrorism’ (on new fronts in South East Asia) and repairing the political estrangement between Canberra and Jakarta which began in 1999 over East Timor. This would be the ultimate test of Canberra’s commitment to regional engagement; and

6) Pressure for reform within the TNI and its accountability for crimes against humanity committed in East Timor from 1998-9 will ease substantially.

President Megawati is not likely to seriously crack down on indigenous Islamic terrorists. She would face opposition and a lack of co-operation from sections of the TNI, and her need for political support from Islamic parties within the People’s Consultative Assembly means she can’t be seen to be repressing Muslim groups, no matter how extreme they may be.

Much of the TNI is unconcerned about international terrorism anyway, rather they are preoccupied with fighting secessionists, resisting calls for reform, consolidating their political position and suppressing political dissent.

Because of their own complicity in appalling acts of brutality, Western governments are reluctant to talk about state terrorism, which comprises most of the politically motivated violence in the modern world.

Instead they prefer to limit the definition of terrorism to private non-state actors such as Al Qaeda or the PLO. The precarious nature of this distinction is dramatically revealed by last week’s MOU. Take the TNI out of the equation and terrorism on the Indonesian archipelago would almost disappear. Before signing up, Canberra should have reflected on the moral value of an agreement with a Government whose military is better known for perpetrating rather than preventing acts of terror.

To achieve so much in a document barely one and a half pages long is a remarkable achievement for an administration not known for its diplomatic dexterity.

— Scott Burchill Lecturer in International Relations School of Australian & International Studies Deakin University 221 Burwood Highway Burwood Victoria 3125 Australia

Phone: (03) 9244 3947 Fax: (03) 9244 6755 Mobile: 0419 355370 email: burchill@deakin.edu.au website: http://arts.deakin.edu.au/burchill/

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